Korea: Posturing, Preening And Predicting


December 8, 2017: The increasing economic sanctions on North Korea have shown up in rapidly growing demands (many of them illegal) for bribes. Kim Jong Un appears to have bet everything on the ability to build a convincing nuclear threat that would eventually result in a huge financial payoff as his enemies submit to his demands and pay for peace. Apparently it is considered treason for anyone to point out that this will not work, that none of the intended extortion (the United States, South Korea and Japan) have shown any inclination to pay. In fact, all three have become more bellicose and threatening. Both South Korea and Japan are openly discussing “going nuclear” (building nuclear weapons, something both of these technological superpowers could easily do) and upgrading their armed forces in general. This annoys the last two local allies North Korea has (China and Russia) who have their own disputes with South Korea and Japan and prefer their opponents to be less well armed and aggressive.

Meanwhile North Korea can no longer afford to supply anyone with essentials like food or medical care. That has been a growing problem since the 1990s and kept getting worse. This has forced the government to allow a market economy to develop and eventually flourish as people did whatever they could to survive. Now it has resulted in a breakdown in discipline at all levels as bribery and extortion become the accepted way of surviving, especially for the security forces and senior bureaucrats.

North Korea gradually legalized the free markets and now faces an institution that is becoming more powerful than the state itself. Entrepreneurs are using all the foreign cash to take over government owned businesses and hire the loyalty of the security services. New laws make it easier for private businesses to hire people. At this point North Korea cannot afford to destroy the free markets as that would be a form of suicide for the rulers. China has long urged North Korea to do this as it was what the Chinese communists did to survive in the 1980s and it worked. Thus in the face of more sanctions the North Korean government is calling on its new “donju” (entrepreneurs) to concentrate on finding ways to make money and pay lots of it to the state in “loyalty payments.” This form of taxation has long been used in North Korea and used to be payable in free labor but these days foreign currency (preferably yuan, dollars or euros preferred).

The North Korean government is also imposing more and more official taxes (mostly on the donju) and fees (0n everyone). North Korea had long claimed that it did not “tax its people” but now the taxes and fees are proliferating like weeds. The police love it because enforcement means more work (and bribes) for them. There are more illegal things to spend the illegal cash on. The collapsing socialist economy means prostitution is back in a big way and recreational drugs (especially meth) are more widely available. Desperate women find that they can trade sex in payment for a bribe and that some security officials prefer the bribe be paid that way.

In the north the government may be socialist in theory but in practice they follow the money. Thus a growing number of state run factories in North Korea have become market based enterprises. The police, and even the secret police, spend more time collecting taxes, fees and “contributions” from the growing number of affluent donju. People are responding by devoting much imagination and energy to evading the demands (which keep growing) from a desperate government that is under increasing international economic pressure. The North Korean government is nothing if not adaptive, which is how it has survived for so long. So the secret police have now been ordered to not only collect more money but also to do it with minimal use of terror. Popular opinion and morale is important, even in a police state. It was never easy being in the secret police and with all the economic problems it just keeps getting worse. Yet compared to most other North Koreans, being in the secret police pays well and there is a degree of job security not found anywhere else in the north. But when the secret police and other key security troops (Special Forces and even local police) become dependent on illegal payments rather than what the state provides the range of things you can buy widens enormously.

What it has come to is that the government will allow an illegal enterprise to operate as long as they pay the bribes and fees demanded by the government and do not engage in activities that threaten the Kim dynasty. While much of this additional income goes to the “special weapons “ (nukes and missiles) programs and gifts to keep the senior officials loyal a lot is spent on vanity projects that glorify the Kim dynasty. This is a problem when word gets around that work continues on these vanity projects (especially new, and very visible one, in the capital) while aid for victims of natural disasters does not arrive as promised. In the past the news of these shortages would not get around, but with the cell phones that is no longer possible.

North Korea tried very hard to shut down cell phone use on the Chinese border but admitted defeat in early 2017 when the elite component of the secret police, the SSD (State Security Department) had its director removed (“purged”) after a three day meeting. The January meeting was attended by senior security officials to address growing accusations that the secret police were corrupt. This was no secret because even the 40,000 SSD personnel (and their families) were suffering from the shortages and need for cash to buy essentials (and luxuries) in the legal markets. The SSD also collected information on attitudes among the people and reported directly to the senior leadership (technically their boss was supreme leader Kim Jong Un) and the news kept getting worse. There were more reports of anti-government talk among the people, a lot of it done openly. In addition to the spread of anti-government graffiti (which even the senior leadership caught sight of) the details of this secret police corruption were getting around North Korea and outside the country. Taking bribes was one thing but witness reports of secret police using beatings and torture to steal money from civilians was particularly annoying to Kim Jong Un and he approved the execution of five secret policemen for getting caught at it. Kim apparently also approved of the details of this meeting being leaked so the North Korean people could see that their leader cares about such things. Kim was disappointed when he received reports that most North Koreans were not impressed. By the end of 2017 the situation had gotten worse with more SSD personnel acting (and apparently believing) that taking bribes was now an essential part of the job and necessary if SSD were to maintain the living standards their families expected. That job required making arrests and that was still possible because those who could not afford the hefty bribes (the SSD were, after all, the elite of the security services) got the usual treatment (labor camp for themselves and possibly family members as well).

A growing number of the SSD arrests are of people related to defectors (or suspected defectors). Despite being a police state with new electronic ID cards it is still possible for someone to just disappear. Not all of these people have left the country but if they are related someone who has then the entire family is added to the growing list of “usual suspects.” Many of these usual suspects are in the military doing their mandatory ten years of service. Those usual suspects are no longer trusted to work near border areas or be considered for promotion. Unless, of course, they turn in someone guilty of crimes the SSD is eager to deal with (treason, espionage, drug dealing) and of high rank.

Colder, Hungrier And Still Out of Ammo

The recent successful and highly publicized defection of the North Korean soldier who got across the DMZ was not unexpected. This year there have been even more reports of hungry troops living in poorly heated barracks during the cold weather who now spend even more time on non-military activities (farming, construction, factory work or being rented to commercial firms for short periods). Over the last few years calls for more “combat readiness” and “modern weapons” by Kim Jong Un are seen as purely propaganda by soldiers on both sides of North Korean borders. Even South Korean troops serving on the DMZ noted this because the North Korean “protests” against large annual South Korean-American training exercises used to trigger the appearance on the DMZ of many North Korean combat troops, armed and often accompanied by armored vehicles. This was all for show but since 2011 fewer and fewer North Korean troops are showing up on the border and fewer North Korean soldiers are seen armed. For most North Korean troops there is little opportunity to handle their weapons, especially when they are loaded. This was partly a budget problem as there was little money for fuel, spare parts or ammunition. Cold weather training exercises in late 2017 generated even more reports of North Korean troops sent to the countryside without the usual additional food supplies and, of course, little or no ammo for their weapons. There was also less confidence in the troops being able to fight effectively or even obey orders to fire in the direction of the enemy. It seems more likely North Korea troops would, if given the opportunity, would drop their weapons and run towards the South Korean forces asking for sanctuary, not surrender.

There was a compelling example of this on November 13th when a North Korean soldier made a dramatic and very public escape into South Korea via the DMZ. The soldier survived being shot five times by pursuing North Korea troops and by the end of the month was recovering in South Korean hospital and speaking freely about the recent sorry state of the North Korean military. The South Korea media was apparently reporting all it could get from the soldier, if only because it confirms what was already known to the public and points out that the situation is actually even worse.

The 25 year old soldier identified himself as Cheong-Seong Oh and revealed that his father was a mid-level (lieutenant colonel) commander in the army military police. Normally such a defection results in severe punishment to the family, especially if that family is part of the security services. Details of the Oh family are still to come.

Cheong-Seong Oh is from a different generation, already knew a lot about South Korea (including the pop music and movies) and wanted to study law in South Korea and make a life there. While he is still quite ill (and only able to eat liquids) he is eager to try the well-known (in North Korea) South Korean Choco Pies. During 2014 these were banned in North Korea and reason was that Choco Pies are a cheap (about 25 cents each in South Korea) chocolate covered vanilla cream filled cake snack in South Korea. But for North Koreans they are a special treat. Not many sweets are available in North Korea and the Choco Pies (based on a similar popular World War I era snack in the American south) has been tweaked to appeal to Korean tastes. Each 30 gm (1.1 ounce) Choco Pie has about 125 calories. Choco Pies entered North Korea in large quantities after 2004 when the Kaesong Industrial Complex opened up there. Over a hundred South Korean companies set up shop and employed more than 50,000 North Koreans. The complex was as a place for South Korean firms to establish factories, using cheaper North Korean workers. The South Korean employers had to pass all worker compensation through the North Korean government and were forbidden to pay workers directly. The North Korean government wanted nothing to do with capitalist practices like better pay for superior performance. The South Koreans found that they could get away with giving snacks to workers as secret bonuses. Choco Pies were particularly popular because they brought the highest prices on the North Korean black market (a dollar or more per Choco Pie). The North Korean government was not happy with the popularity and growing availability of Choco Pies, which were a tasty reminder that life was better in the capitalist south. For decades North Korean propaganda had insisted that South Koreans were worse off. How was that possible if the southerners had all the Choco Pies they want? North Korea officials are not completely clueless and were persuaded to allow South Korean managers to give out other snacks from the south (sausages and chocolates are popular as are instant noodles). But this did not last. The Kaesong complex was closed in early 2016, another casualty of North Korean nuclear and missile tests.

Cheong-Seong Oh also confirmed that North Korean men are not happy with the fact that most must now serve ten years in the military. Living standards for the troops have declined rapidly since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. Not only have food supplies declined in terms of quantity and quality there are fewer amenities in general for the troops. It is more common now for troops to be receiving contaminated water supplies and spoiled (moldy grains and rancid meat) food. The government no longer supplies soap (for washing themselves or their clothes) and toothpaste and most conscripts cannot afford to buy their own. Medical supplies are also less available as is medical care in general.

Even Cheong-Seong Oh, the son of a military police commander, was in poor physical condition. The first two operations on him revealed this the soldier was a very sick man even before he fled. Yes, he was tough, as most North Koreans must be just to survive. But because South Korea is a democracy with a free press details of what afflictions the soldier suffered from soon became news, especially the number of intestinal parasites he had, including one South Korean doctors said they had never seen before. When the soldier was well enough to provide details of his living conditions and described the state of food and water he consumed regularly South Korea doctors understood what was going on north of the DMZ. It was also realized that South Korean joke about stopping a North Korea invasion using bombs and shells that were filled with South Korea junk food many northerners have heard of and a few have tasted and enjoyed would be more effective than trying to kill the invaders. Now doctors realized that given the state of North Korean soldiers’ digestive tract because of the bad food and water, suddenly switching to South Korean snack foods and other delicacies the northerners had never had would induce diarrhea and disability until their digestive tract could adjust to the Western diet.

This problem was not unknown in South Korea. That’s because of the more than 500,000 South Korean troops who have served, individually, in U.S. Army units since 1950. The South Korean soldiers, usually conscripts right out of high school, have to pass an English proficiency test to be eligible for the KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) program. Even then, there is a lottery to select, from among the many who are eligible, the young South Korean soldiers who will spend most of their 24 months military service with the American army in South Korea. The KATUSAs remain part of the South Korean army, but report to American units and are given a job that would otherwise have to be performed by an American soldier. The KATUSAs are treated just like the American troops, living in the same barracks, eating in the same mess halls and getting the same medical care. A common medical problem with KATUSAs was diarrhea because the KATUSA did not follow instructions and shift gradually to the very different (especially in terms of sweets, processed foods and so on) food served in the American dining halls and when troops were out in the field. The diarrhea problem was largely gone by the 1980s as the South Korean economy became affluent enough to produce local versions of the American processed and snack foods. But the older men still remember and joke about and the “KATUSA diarrhea” has become part of South Korean folklore. That was also known to North Korean intelligence but was forbidden knowledge for the average North Korean soldiers.

Most North Koreans who make it to South Korea have already adjusted to the richer diet found outside North Korea and don’t have severe problems with the food. But if a lot of North Koreans flee to South Korea, even if most of them are North Korean soldiers coming through the JSA sector unarmed, the diet and too many Choco Pies will be a potential problem.

Electric Schemes

One thing North Korea cannot easily hide is the amount of electricity available for the population. Even commercial space satellites can monitor this and it appears that North Korea is putting the coal it can no longer export to use in generating more electricity. The capital is best off, guaranteed at least 12 hours of electricity a day (the elite neighborhoods get it 24/7). Rural areas get at least six hours a day during planning and harvesting seasons. But residential areas in general have to bribe someone to get electricity on demand. This is an issue for the newly affluent (donju or bribe enriched officials) who can now afford a refrigerator. Portable generators are another option but it is still cheaper to bribe. This is especially the case now that the government has adopted an “anything goes” attitude towards taxation. Thus many young women (and some young men) have found that sex can be used in place of cash for many bribes.

More frequent access to electricity isn’t just for the fridge. The next luxury purchase is a flat screen TV, the better to view South Korea and Chinese films and TV shows. The South Korean media has been the most popular and most forbidden pleasure in North Korea for a long time and now even the security forces (and especially their children) watch this stuff and police will patrol neighborhoods where illegal electric supplies are available and look for signs of a flat screen TV shining in the darkness and seize the opportunity to extort another bribe.

Another annoying side effect of the illegal South Korean videos is the kids (and young adults) using South Korean slang, speech patterns and even physical mannerisms in public. Tough to get a bribe out of that and it is a reminder that the campaign to suppress South Korean media in the north is futile, unless you are someone who can get bribes from those who are sloppy about hiding that bright flat screen. In that case you not only have access to bribes but also a supply of free flat screens or new South Korea video. The former can be taken in lieu of cash while that latter is seized as contraband. Even in a collapsing police state life can be very good at times.

While the existence of the bribable police and rampant use of forbidden media and stolen electricity is bad enough, there are also instances of outright rebellion. The people who can afford these luxuries are not the downtrodden (and thoroughly bullied) masses but those who run the prison or have found ways to exploit. So in some cases there is outright resistance to unpopular government efforts. One of the more recent ones was a government effort to force people using solar panels (an expensive, but legal, way around electricity shortages) to buy an electrical use meter and pay a tax on the electricity generated. This was seen as an absurd scheme on several levels and a growing number of solar panel owners are overtly or covertly refusing to cooperate. The government, as the solar panel owners suspected, was not willing to go to war against “solar electricity bandits” and in some parts of the country the “meters for solar panels” plan has been quietly dropped.

Another secret revealed by the night time satellite photos are rural areas where the lights do not signify some semi-secret government project but another rural area that has developed a lucrative and quasi-legal enterprise that generates enough affluence to make night lights a common item. Donju have found that the cost (in bribes) is lower if all you are doing is producing illegal liquor or counterfeit goods (usually imported from China or South Korea) and even some illegal (or at least immoral) personal services facilities for locals and foreigners (the few Chinese business visitors still allowed). When restrictions on Chinese and other tourists are lifted some of the unofficial resort facilities are expected to be very successful, not least because they can afford to pay high “taxes” (legal and otherwise) to stay open.

These rural outlaws also revealed another donju innovation; commercial minibus and car service that is faster, more reliable and comfortable than the state run railroads. The rural roads are often poorly maintained but donju have learned that they can pay locals to do some road maintenance and be available to help out with any minibus mishaps. The improved roads assist the locals to travel to towns and railroad stations and get goods in and out of the area. Local government officials are cheaper to rent out there and they also appreciate the extra income and amenities. As the old Chinese saying puts it;” the mountains are high and the emperor is far away”.

Chinese Reality

China sees the North Korean threat differently that the Americans and most Westerners. The Chinese note, as do many others who study North Korea, that sanctions do not cut off North Korea but just make it more expensive for them to get what they want. It is no secret that corrupt nations like Egypt, Cuba, Iran, Mozambique, Burma, Sri Lanka, Syria, Angola and Uganda regularly tolerate North Korean diplomats who want to make deals and are willing to pay whatever bribes are required. The Americans cannot shut down all of these partners North Korea uses and China wants the U.S. to back off on sanctions that make it more difficult for Chinese (especially banks and trading companies) to do legitimate business.

Meanwhile China faces some very immediate threats from North Korea. For example there are a growing number of scary stories coming out of North Korea that China feels compelled to act on, especially in areas along its North Korean border. Thus China has been quietly sending in personnel and material to update existing plans to deal with a large number of North Korean refugees suddenly fleeing across the border. This is something Chinese (many of them ethnic Koreans) living near the border worry about and often do so in public. The government knows the efforts to update and upgrade emergency Korean refugee center plans will, even without any publicity, get around and assure Chinese that the government is aware of the potential problem and dealing with it. Some potential problems have to be handled with more discretion. For example China recently ran a media campaign about dealing with the effects of nuclear weapons. The implication was that these might be American nukes hitting North Korean targets close to the Chinese border (where many of these facilities are) or, less likely, North Korea using a nuke against China (which the government considers impossible but Chinese popular opinion is another matter and it cannot be ignored). What this “how to deal with radiation” advice is really about is the growing evidence that some of the North Korea nuclear weapons facilities near the Chinese border are leaking a lot more radioactivity lately. The last nuclear weapons test caused a noticeable (but not dangerous) increase in airborne radiation coming from North Korea. That proved impossible to hide. Worse some of the North Korean defectors reaching China and getting caught show (when given a thorough medical exam) the effects of exposure to dangerous radiation levels. This is fairly recent and causing growing unease among Chinese living near the border. So the media campaign offers practical and reassuring advice that can be confirmed via other sources on the Islamic terrorists. In this case China takes advantage of the fact that many Chinese still break the law and freely access the Internet outside China.

Meanwhile there is the growing crime caused by armed North Korea troops in uniform crossing the border, usually at night, to steal whatever they can and then return to North Korea. On the Chinese side of the border there are a growing number of unauthorized North Korean secret police operations, especially in northeast China. These operations are meant to recapture some defectors (who are too senior or too knowledgeable), or even kill them if capture is not possible. China tolerates this sort of thing as long as it remains discreet and local officials are rewarded with useful information (as well as bribes, which are illegal but customary). This sort of thing keeps Chinese intelligence efforts up-to-date about what is really going on in North Korea.

With what China knows about current affairs across the border it is easier to understand how the Chinese see the “threat” differently. The North Korean threat to China is rather absurdist; push us North Koreans too far and we will bleed all over you. This is not as spectacular as a nuclear threat, but more likely. Thus the precautions against refugees and criminal activity by North Korea security forces. The Chinese know (as do most senior North Korean officials) that actual use of nukes by North Korea (whether successful or not) means the end of the North Korean government and possibly much of the population as well. The traditional (and still quite popular) Chinese strategy is to try and make deals with enough members of the senior North Korean leadership to carry out a coup. Even if that does not succeed the growing paranoia among the senior leadership leads to weakening of the North Korean government as more key people flee or become ineffective lest they do something that is deemed treasonous.

In this situation China is more exposed to damage than South Korea or Japan. In other words, the North Korean ICBM is more of a political prop than a military threat. But a collapse of the North Korean government and a flood of refugees heading for the largely unfortified Chinese border is a very real threat and not something the Chinese want to deal with, especially if a lot of those refugees suffer from radiation poisoning and more common diseases that are rarely encountered in China these days. China cannot admit that it is actually hoping for a military coup that would preserve public order in North Korea and justify sending large volumes of aid and getting the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs dismantled. A disorderly collapse of the North Korean government would make the current Chinese leadership weak, not something that head of communist police state can afford.

Russia is also at risk for the same reasons and appears to be following the Chinese lead in dealing with North Korea. Russia is at lesser risk because of a shorter border and not many people on the Russian side to begin with. Russia is more concerned about not offending China and really cares little about what happens in North Korea.

South Korea, while very much an ally of the United States and strong believer in democracy and economic freedom, is still an ancient neighbor of China and has reached an understanding of sorts with the traditional local superpower. South Korea does not want to burn down the neighborhood because of disagreements with China over North Korea. So South Korea is now constantly in touch with China over North Korea. The biggest problem here is South Korea being able to make both the U.S. and China understand what South Korea is willing to do and why. China and South Korea seem to agree that North Korea has an incompetent and unstable government that needs replacing. They both agree that North Korea is seeking to use the threat of possessing nuclear armed ballistic missiles to force the West (including South Korea) to subsidize the economic disasters the North Korean government has created. No one believes North Korea is actually capable to producing a real nuclear threat but are concerned about the damage North Korea does to itself as it goes through the motions.

December 6, 2017: South Korea approved a seven percent increase in annual defense spending (to $39.3 billion). There were big increases in what is being spent on missile defense and Special Forces (especially units expected to go north in wartime or a severe crises). Pay for conscripts will be doubled and career soldiers are getting large pay raises. Japan is also spending more on defense and especially missile defense. Japan is also buying long-range cruise missiles that its fighter-bombers can fire at targets anywhere in North Korea.

December 2, 2017: South Korean and American officials agreed not to consider using a naval blockade (an act of war according to international law) against North Korea. Both nations also agreed that the latest North Korea missile test did not, as some past ones had, result in a final stage successfully reentering the atmosphere. The U.S. said its sensors indicated the Hwasong-15 missile broke apart as it fell back to earth after having gone 4,400 kilometers into space. It is unclear if that was deliberate because the North Koreans know the South Korean are able to retrieve wreckage of North Korean missiles that falls into the ocean. This debris is analyzed and has revealed much about North Korean capabilities.

November 30, 2017: The U.S. openly (at the UN) called on China to cut off all remaining oil exports to North Korea. China began cutting oil exports to North Korea in 2013. When these cuts began China was the largest supplier (3.5 million barrels in 2012) and since then China cut all other forms of energy exports (natural gas, electricity and refined oil products). But North Korea is still getting 6,000 barrels a day of refined oil products and 10,000 barrels a day of oil for the only oil refinery in North Korea (near the Chinese border.) The cuts have hurt the North Korea economy and military capabilities but the North Koreans used more of their own resources (like coal) and gave the nuclear and ballistic missile programs top priority. China did not immediately respond to the American suggestion.

November 29, 2017: North Korea carried out another ICBM test. This was successful and featured a new ICBM design ( Hwasong-15 or HS-15) , one similar to the American Cold War era Atlas (one of the last U.S. liquid fueled ICBMs). Atlas was retired as an ICBM in 1965 and most of the missiles were converted to satellite launchers. North Korea said their new HS-15 could reach all of the United States and that is true if it has a guidance system capable of handling that. But this missile test, the first in over two months, did not generate offers of surrender from South Korea, America and Japan but instead counter-threats. China expressed disappointment with North Korea. That is a traditional Chinese way of threatening retribution.

There were no North Korean missiles launched for nearly three months, until a new one went up today. China and the United States see this as a threat, but for very different reasons. The many missiles launched and another nuclear test in 2017 have not made life better for North Koreans, or the North Korean government. South Korea was another matter. China quietly lifted, at the end of October, most of the economic punishments it had at on South Korea because the South Koreans insisted on installing an American made THAAD anti-missile system. While China is backing off, the Chinese have made a point. The temporary interruption of trade with South Korea did not hurt China as much as it did South Korea and it really had no significant impact on the economies of either country. Meanwhile North Korea is visibly suffering from the increased sanctions that took effect in 2017. China wants Kim Jong Un to deal with the problem and not become a victim of it. The Kim clan does not seem to be paying attention.

At the same time China and the United States have different problems with North Korea. For the Americans the primary issue is North Korea building a credible ICBM armed with a working nuke. China believes (as do many Americans) that the North Korean ICBM threat is mainly for show and not quite rational. If the North Koreans did launch an ICBM against the Americans it would have to get past the dozens of GBI (Ground Based Interceptor) anti-missile missiles based silos at Fort Greely Alaska. This is a key component of the GMD (Ground-Based Midcourse Defense) anti-missile system in Alaska that protects North America from long range ballistic missiles from North Korea, China or Russia. Testing of the 22 ton GBI began in 2006 and 55 percent of the tests so far have been successful.

While much criticized in the United States, American anti-missile systems are well-respected in places like China and Russia. Patriot has been stopping ballistic missiles since the early 1990s and in the last two years has regularly knocked down North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles used against Saudi Arabia. Other systems like Aegis, THAAD and GBI depend on realistic testing to impress. Aegis has done best, actually destroying low-orbit space satellite at one point. China sees American qualms about the North Korean missile threat as more media theater than rational analysis.

November 24, 2017: In the northwest the main bridge connecting North Korea with the Chinese city of Dandong will be closed temporarily for repairs. This Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge crosses the Yalu River and until recent sanctions carried about 70 percent of the North Korean imports and exports. The bridge was built by the Japanese and completed in 1943. It was heavily damaged a decade later during the Korean War and repairs were made. Since the 1980s repairs have been less frequent and thorough. A 2010 project to build a new bridge are stalled because of corruption and mismanagement, mainly by the North Koreans. In any event Chinese exports to North Korea are down over 60 percent (compared to 2016) and due to decline even more.

North Korea tried to keep news of their latest defector from its people but that proved impossible, especially for North Koreans living within twenty kilometers of the DMZ. Most of the North Korea army is stationed along the DMZ and they, along with North Korea civilians listen for the news that is now broadcast to them from South Korea via loudspeakers. In August 2015 South Korea resumed news broadcasts from large speakers on their side of the DMZ. North Korea tried to shut this down and failed. It all began with a 2004 agreement in which sides agreed to halt the use of loudspeakers on the DMZ as well as attacks on each other. These attacks are almost all North Korean operations but the north was willing to make this deal in return for some desperately needed economic aid. According to the south the north officially broke this deal in 2010 with two very public military attacks on the south. As a result eleven new loudspeaker systems were installed on the DMZ but were not turned on until 2015. A week later the north resumed using loudspeakers on their side of the border, but these were mainly to try and cancel out the message (uncensored news, South Korean pop music and such) coming from the south. The northern broadcasts features praise for North Korean leaders and the superior lifestyle of the north. The South Korean speakers are more powerful and have longer range. Better South Korean tech and all that. Worse, several months ago South Korea revealed that it had discovered the loudspeaker broadcasts had been having quite an impact on North Korean soldiers. Whether this played a role in the latest defector incident is unclear but South Koreans (usually soldiers) along the DMZ have noted that any visible North Koreans tend to perk up when the South Korea loudspeaker newscasts begin.


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